Vol. V: Rescue the Sounds

Greasy Lake, 2002, by: David J. Mieras
Where David recalls how Little Steven Van Zandt showed up at the UPSTAGE club... and almost disappeared again.
<img border="1" src="images/stevenupstage.jpg" align="left" hspace="5" width="200"></font><font face="arial" size="1">Image
courtesy of Billy Smith<br>
<a href="http://www.wallsoffame.com">www.wallsoffame.com<br>
</a>Early UPSTAGE Image</font>The Coast Cities Coach bus connecting Red Bank and Asbury Park rumbled south, hugging the Jersey seaboard. This stretch, from Monmouth College to the upscale town of Deal, rivaled the roller coasters in Asbury, the guitar-carrying longhair lamented. He was a bit nervous for a number of reasons. You needn't look far to find people giving him the eye. He was different, the type who made a statement by the way he talked, dressed and played his guitar. The kid didn't need to open his mouth. Businessmen have a look dedicated to their professions: This boy was in his working clothes, too, and had an allegiance comparable to that of any suit's. In fifteen minutes he'd be dropped on the streets of Asbury Park and, if all went well, jammin' onstage at the UPSTAGE CLUB would be on the agenda.<p>

The UPSTAGE CLUB, now that joint was a piece of work! There never was, and may never again be, anything to match that happenin' spot's concept. It was located at the corner of Cookman and Bond in the heart of Asbury, and the UPSTAGE's owners, Tom and Margaret Potter, envisioned a coffee house that would attract the "hip kids," as Tom was quoted in the Asbury Park Press. Situated in a second-floor space above the Thom McAn shoe store, it debuted as the Green Mermaid Caf? in the summer of 1967.<p>

An incredible amount of effort went into preparing a freaked-out decor that would absolutely capture one's senses. All walls, ceilings and floors were spray-painted flat black. Then the tedious process of original Day-Glo art design was hand painted on every conceivable surface. This became a community affair: Beatniks, Surfers, Greasers and Hippies converged to lend a hand. An authentic stage with drawn curtains and Victorian woodwork beckoned the musician or actor who dared chance making a fool of himself. The rock hall opened on the third floor that winter, and word quickly spread about this novel club that catered to the young rocker crowd. The network of kids who joined and received passes gladly passed out flyers to promote their clique and was elated to watch the reputation and popularity of their club--and its resident musicians--grow.<p>

Stevie was relieved as he exited the old streamline clunker. The brown leather seats were sliced, and gum wads were everywhere you stepped or touched. Even as the bus resumed east on Cookman towards the beach, the young rider was smothered in a cloud of exhaust fumes, reinforcing his notion that buses were created in hell. Walkin' across the street, he entered "Five's Newstore." Whoa, there ain't no stores like this in Middletown, he thought, while he checked out the paraphernalia for sale. "What you need, man?" Smoothie the counter person blurted out. "Hey man, I'll just take a pack of M&Ms," the kid said, and his train of thought reverted to his objective. "Where's the UPSTAGE CLUB?" he asked. "Just across the street on the next corner. You playin' there tonight or something?" "I might be," the kid replied, and headed for the door. "What's your name?" asked Smoothie. "Stevie." The counterman said he'd be there after work, "in the back near the chicks room, hangin' with my friends. Stop by the table."<p>

The kid from Middletown made his way to the entrance of the UPSTAGE and stared inside. His head raised, Stevie peered up the stairwell leading into the darkness. Everywhere he gazed, the colors seemed to jump off the walls under the dim blue gleam of blacklight. "It's a freakin' funhouse" was his first impression.<p>

<img border="1" src="images/greenmermaid.jpg" hspace="5" width="263" height="354"><br>
</font><font FACE="arial" SIZE="1">Courtesy of Jeff Norman, Original
UPSTAGE street sign</p>

"What's up man?" Jeff the doorman inquired. "You comin' in to play?" "Yeah man, I wanna play," Stevie said. "Who you playin' with and what's your name?" "Well, um, you know the guys up there tonight, um, Smoothie and his friends?" "You know Smoothie? Jeff replied. "No problem, they sit near the chicks room on the third floor." Stevie had just met the owners' older son.<p>

Stevie was in, and as he slowly crossed the threshold of no return, his fate was sealed. Reaching the second floor landing, a formidable man on a stool looked Stevie up and down. The doorway on the left is a blank black wall. Something was goin' on behind the obstacle; he could hear soft music and gab. Make a left or right and you discover it was just a partition designed to block light. Stevie looked up and heard guitar chords emanating from the upper floor. No contest, he thought. Wasting little time, his body was directed towards the passion of his life. Man, this is one weird place, he thought.<p>

"Hey son, are you looking for someone?" the man on the stool asked. "Yeah man, is Smoothie playin' upstairs?" Standing up, the man edged closer to Stevie. "You jammin' with Smoothie tonight?" the man barked. "That's right, he invited me to jam," Stevie said. "So you can play that guitar slung over your shoulder?" "I sure can. So when does Smoothie go on?" "Son, Smoothie goes on when you do," the man said. "Now take your sorry butt down those stairs the way you dragged it up."<p>

Strolling out from behind the blank black wall, Ritchie "D" stumbled into the conversation. Tom was yanking up his pants by the belt and crowding the kid from Middletown. "Smoothie ain't in no band. Now hit the road," co-owner Tom Potter said. Stevie stomped down the stairs, cursing under his breath. What the fuck was that all about, Ritchie "D" thought as he watched the longhaired guitar player disappear into the night. Ritchie raced down the stairs in pursuit of the unhappy visitor headed back to the Coast Cities Coach stop.<p>

"Hey, can you play?" Ritchie yelled. Stevie turned around and shook his head up and down in acknowledgement. Ritchie dodged traffic as he ran across the street. "Hey man, what was that all about with Tom?" he asked. "He won't let me play tonight. Fuck him," Stevie replied with contempt. "Well, can you play?" asked Ritchie. "Fuckin' A, of course I can play," Stevie said. "All right, man, wait here," and Ritchie took off. Stevie had just met the resident lead guitar wizard, known to his friends as the "fastest guitar on the Jersey Shore."<p>

<img border="1" src="images/chicks.jpg" width="267" height="389"><br>
</font><font FACE="arial" SIZE="1">Original UPSTAGE artwork.<br>
By David J. Mieras, circa 1967, The Chicks Room</p>

Man, this night ain't workin' out, thought Stevie. He watched through the plate glass window as Smoothie punched an awl into leather, making a stash bag to sell. Here comes the bus, I'm out of here. Waiving his arm to alert the driver, Stevie displayed stooped shoulders of disappointment. The bus stopped and Stevie was about to board when a voice screamed, "You can play!" Ritchie had spoken with Tom and vouched that the new arrival was a seriously talented musician. Because he was the main attraction in the third floor rock hall, Tom had faith in Ritchie. "Okay, the kid can stay," he said.<p>

Ritchie escorted Stevie past Tom without a word. "Thanks, man. What did you say to convince that dude to let me back in?" "Well, Tom's the owner of this club and I told him you were invited by me to jam tonight." Ritchie explained that there weren't many places offering the opportunity young musicians had at the UPSTAGE, and that he was curious to see how Stevie handled that guitar. Stevie from Middletown extended his hand in gratitude. "My name's Ritchie 'D', glad to meet you man," as they shook hands, cementing a lifelong bond.<p>

Later that night, the corner boys from The Grove gathered at their table in the far recesses of the cavernous rock-n-roll refuge. Ritchie had introduced Stevie and told them about the confrontation. Smoothie, Monk, Davy and the Cad were anxious to hear the newest musician making the scene. Since the third floor opened, rockers were starting to show up and jam on a regular basis. Vini, Ritchie and Gary, the pioneers who were the inaugural performers at UPSTAGE, relished the new talent. Little John, the bass player from Belmar, brought his friend David, who had magic fingers on the keyboard. Each new player brought varied styles to this creative process, and the jams grew longer. The corner boys were diggin' their newfound secret hideaway.<p>

<img border="1" src="images/rickdwildbilly.jpg" hspace="5" width="300"><br>
</font><font FACE="arial" SIZE="1">Courtesy of Bobby Bush, Left to
right</font>: <font FACE="arial" SIZE="1">Wild Billy, Bobby his bro
and Ricky &quot;D&quot;, 1965</p>

Ritchie plugged in and immediately cranked out a couple riffs of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)". He was the only guitar player on the Jersey Shore who knew these smokin' tunes. Gary hopped on stage to back Ritchie up on bass, followed by Vini on percussion. Thirty minutes into what by all appearances was becoming an endless Hendrix cover, the warmed-up triad motioned Stevie to join. Smooth as silk, Stevie blended his string pickin' flawlessly into the mix. The corner boys' chatter instantly focused on the latest member of the cast of characters to join the UPSTAGE CLUB. "Man, did you hear how they transitioned into 'I'm So Glad?" Davy commented to his friends. The kids were in rock-n-roll heaven.<p>

In the early morning hours of the following day, the marathon ended and the boys rushed the stage to compliment Stevie. "Hey Stevie, you sounded great," Davy said. "You gonna come back again sometime?" "Yeah dude, this place is far out," Stevie replied. "I'll be comin' down here every chance I get."<p>

When the lights were turned off and all went their separate ways, Stevie realized he'd found a community that accepted him with open arms. Asbury Park had a germinating music scene, a climate of camaraderie made to order. As time went by, other searchers discovered what Stevie found that night in 1968: A freedom previously unknown, devoid of prejudice found out on the street. A place where you could unconditionally count on your friends when the need arose. This was the UPSTAGE CLUB.<p>

Three decades have faded the memories and emotions of the poignant trice that forged a band of brothers. Some of the players moved on to roles that make dreams come true. Others dwell in fates of the common proletariat. The boyhood names have long vanished. Still, to this day, when Stevie captures a glimpse of his amigo Ritchie in a crowd, the wonderment returns to a day captured in time. Stevie makes a direct route across the floor and thanks Ritchie, understanding that the intervention of a stranger in a cold, lonely world shaped his future.